Aakhri Khat (1966)

Hindi cinema has, for many decades (much of its existence?) been stereotyped. Mush, melodrama, music. The usual plot of countless films over the years has been dominated by a few given elements, even when the film’s main story may straddle other genres, such as thriller or comedy. You can’t have a Hindi film without romance, song and dance, and melodrama, seems to be the rule followed by most film makers.

Which is why the exceptions to the rule come as such a breath of fresh air. Majhli Didi, Dekh Kabira Roya, Kaanoon, Ittefaq… and this touching, tragic yet heartwarming story of a toddler wandering through the streets of big, bad Bombay.

Chetan Anand is supposed to have started filming Aakhri Khat with no real script in mind, just following—with a handheld camera—toddler Bunty as he made his way through Bombay, going here, there and everywhere. A baby on his own in a frightening city. From that emerged this story of a blighted love, a soured romance that ends in tragedy.

The Aakhri Khat (‘last letter’) refers to a letter received by Govind (Rajesh Khanna, in his debut role), a sculptor who lives in Bombay. Govind has been receiving these letters, each of them dropped into the letter box at the gate of his home, and they have upset him immensely. He yells for his servant Moti (Mohan Choti), asking him if this time he has managed to see who left the letter, and when, but Moti hasn’t seen anyone.

But we, the audience, have. We have seen Laajo (Indrani Mukherjee), dressed in a tattered sari but with her 15 month old baby Buntu (Bunty) nattily attired, as she makes her way around Bombay. It’s obvious that Laajo is distressed by the city: its noise and its crowds overwhelm her, she searches out quiet corners where she can take shelter.

She looks, furtively, for Govind. She goes to his house, but does not venture in, instead standing outside and looking longingly at it before dropping the letter into the letter box. One evening, she even manages to find her way to the nightclub Govind frequents. She does not meet Govind, but a friend of Govind’s, Rajni (Naqi Jehan), emerging from the nightclub, sees Laajo. Buntu, standing a little away on the pavement, starts wailing just then, and Laajo hurries away to comfort him. Rajni is puzzled.

Laajo plays hide-and-seek with Buntu, mother and baby sharing a little bit of fun and happiness as they run about between stacks of bamboos piled up on the beach, forming a maze…

But the joy is short-lived. Laajo, every now and then, clutches her chest, feeling an ‘attack’ come on—she seems to have a weak heart.

And this is what she’s written about in that last letter to Govind: she’s dying of the same disease that killed her mother. Already, twice, she has suffered these attacks. The third one will kill her, but she will leave Buntu at his doorstep before that. He must believe her: Buntu is his child.

By the time he receives this last letter, Govind does not need further convincing. He seems to have acknowledged that Buntu is his child, and that he has been cruel to Laajo—even if we don’t know yet exactly what happened to tear apart a romance that seems idyllic in the few snatches of flashback through which it’s shown.

How Govind met Laajo in Kullu, how they got ‘married’ (as always, when it comes to such situations, there is a semblance of some form of ‘marriage’ rather than merely jumping into bed) at the Hadimba Devi Temple: all of this emerges over the next couple of days, as Govind goes to the police to try and find Laajo and Buntu. Inspector Naik (Manvendra  Chitnis), who takes on the case, is frustrated at Govind’s demands: how can Govind hope to find one woman in Bombay, when he doesn’t even have a photograph of that woman?

But Govind does have something that can help: in the halcyon days when he and Laajo were in Kullu, he had made a life-size sculpture of hers. If Inspector Naik agrees, Govind suggests that a photograph of the statue could be of help.

Inspector Naik goes along and takes a photo of the statue—a sensuous one, seen through a lover’s eyes—and when he shows an interest in the Govind-Laajo story, Govind tells him, in snatches, as the two men go about Bombay, trying to follow leads, Naik checking up with other police stations along the way, spreading the word, as well as the photograph.

 

The photograph has its desired effect: it helps find Laajo. Sadly, a dead Laajo. As she had prophesied, the third attack has killed her. Unfortunately, before she could take Buntu and leave him at Govind’s home. And, worse still, Buntu (who is a toddler much prone to wandering off on his own, a born explorer), had been away on one of his little jaunts when Laajo died. She had set off to look for him, and had suffered that fatal attack while searching for her child.

Govind sees Laajo’s corpse in the police station to which it’s been brought (and where she’s been identified). He’s shattered, and stricken by guilt, but now there is another, even more frightening fear gnawing at him: where is Buntu? If Laajo’s dead, who is looking after Buntu? And if nobody’s there to care of him, how is the infant surviving?

But Buntu is surviving. He misses his mother now and then and calls for her—he even goes searching for her in that maze of bamboos—but he also goes about on his own, finding food and drink for himself, sleeping where he can.

Will the paths of these two cross, the baby who is now motherless and the father who has never even seen his child?

What I liked about this film:

Everything, really. It’s an unusual film, not so much in the story (there are, after all, lots of other films about illegitimate children who are rejected by suspicious biological fathers), but in its treatment. Buntu is the focus of Aakhri Khat, and the fact that the only word he can really utter (besides the meaningless gurgles and coos of toddlerhood) is “Mama” makes him an even more helpless child than other children-on-their-own, as in Boot Polish or Toofaan aur Diya.

That could have been terribly melodramatic and pathetic, but oddly enough, it isn’t. Yes, I did feel my eyes well up when little Buntu looks forlornly for his Mama amidst the bamboos, but the rest of the time, this is an intrepid child who makes his own way through life, seeking out food and drink and play as best as he can—and with a startling degree of success, too.

And that success is not a result of mere coincidence or anything artificial: Buntu is too small and too naïve to be able to resort to artifice of any kind, but instinct drives him to find solutions for himself, whether it’s nicking milk bottles from doorsteps or (charmingly) helping himself to the prasad piled up in front of the idol at a temple.

The second important aspect of Aakhri Khat which I liked a lot was that the characters came across as real people: three-dimensional, their characters shades of grey rather than extremes of black and white. Govind, though the leading male character, is by no means ‘heroic’: the callous way in which he treats Laajo is contemptible, and when an angry and frustrated Inspector Naik calls Govind out, flinging in his face all the ways in which Govind is at fault here, Govind has no option but to admit that yes, he is to blame.

Rajni, too, though slotted as the ‘other woman’—or the potential other woman—is a level-headed person, a woman who sees the injustice of what the man she loves has done. She does not fall into the stereotypical bracket of the conniving, jealous third wheel: in fact, it is Rajni who eggs Govind on to do the right thing.

And there are the everyday people. The priest in the temple, the vendors of snacks and cold drinks and chuskis, the passersby. They don’t go out of their way to be kind to Buntu, but it’s not as if they’re utterly heartless. There is the chuskiwallah, for example, who gives a thirsty Buntu a chuski for free the first day, even though he can see that Buntu doesn’t have any money. The next day, when Buntu again turns up, silently demanding chuskis, the man calmly (and not unkindly) says that Buntu can’t have a chuski today because he doesn’t have the money for it; but he gives Buntu a glass of cold water, anyway.

And, there is the way things connect, the mirroring of motifs. Buntu goes looking for his mother, calling “Mama? Mama?” through the very same bamboo maze in which he had played with her just a couple of days earlier. Govind, seeing Laajo’s dead body, breaks down and—in the background, we hear the song that he had once sung, stopping Laajo from going: Aur kuchh der thehar. As if he’s begging Laajo to come back from the dead, to not leave him thus.

Last but not the least, there’s the music. With lyrics by Kaifi Azmi, the score of Aakhri Khat features some of Khayyam’s most unusual compositions. While the seductive Aur kuchh der thehar or the bright, gentle Bahaaron mera jeevan bhi sanwaaro are probably more recognizably Khayyam’s style, the peppy Hai kuchh bhi nahin o my darling (which, by the way, is missing from the version on Youtube) is a completely different style—very Western, very dance club style. My absolute favourite song from Aakhri Khat, though also very Western, is in another style altogether: Rut jawaan jawaan, sung by (and picturized on) a very young Bhupinder—with the iconic Chic Chocolate playing the trumpet in the background—is brilliantly stylish: it has a sensuousness and elegance that put it in the realm of all-time great ‘crooner’ songs for me (and possibly the only song featuring a male crooner).

What didn’t I like? Nothing, really. This is an unusual, interesting film that really touched me.

Tangential bit of humour:

When I was writing up this review, I searched online for ‘Aakhri Khat’ to see if I could glean any interesting behind the scenes information (the only bit I could discover, from Gautam Chintamani’s biography of Rajesh Khanna, was that Chetan Anand, in an attempt to prep the actor for the final scene in the film, ensured that Khanna got no sleep for the last three days—by the end, Khanna was a wreck, which was exactly how Govind is supposed to be by then).

But, to return to that search. While Google did show results pertaining to the film, it also showed me this.

19 thoughts on “Aakhri Khat (1966)

  1. Good Evening Madhuji,
    I saw this movie on it’s first release. But to see again on youtube.

    And this movie has one of Lataji’s very popular song.

    Aakhri Khat – Baharon mera jeevan bhi sanwaro

    Very good description by you on this movie, in your article.

    Thanks and blessings
    Uma

  2. Really nice of you to review this film which I had seen in its theatre release in 1966. Being a kid, I really empathised with Bunty and his wandering. The final scene ( where he sees his mom’s statue and tries to feed) did bring tears to my eyes then….and even now! I only wonder about a few things…Did Baby’s Day out ‘borrow’ from Aakhri Khat?
    Secondly, what really happened to Bunty? I recall seeing him as a 5-6 year boy in a Hindi movie, but later on he seems to have disappeared!
    Really a good review!

    • Thank you, I’m so glad you liked this review. And I’m so glad that someone other than me also had tears in their eyes at the scene when Buntu sees his mother’s statue! I had tears flowing down my cheeks watching that. It was so touching.

      I have no idea what happened to Bunty post this film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in any other film. And Baby’s Day Out – I have to admit I’ve not got around to seeing that either.

  3. Thanks for the review Madhu. This film had been long on my list to watch but I did not because I thought it may be a bit too sachharine. But based on your review, I will watch it. So glad you called out the music – I LOVE “Rut jawaaN jawaaN” – great song, nice singing. One thing – you did not mention a song that I rank among my favorites by Lata – Mere chanda mere nanhe. Khayyam I think has outdone himself with the simplicity of the tune and masterful singing by Lata. And the context of the song with her already being dead while the child is alone is so unusual.
    Thanks for bringing this film back to the front of my “to watch” list.

    • I’m so glad there’s someone other than me who loves Rut jawaan jawaan – I think most people are in love with the other songs of Aakhri Khat, but for me that is the stellar song. It’s so suave and sexy.

      Agree that Mere chanda mere nanhe is a lovely song too. Someone on my Facebook network mentioned that he’s never able to watch it in its entirety, because it is too, too sad. It certainly is very poignant.

      Do watch the film when you can, and tell me what you think of it. I think Chetan Anand does a very good job of making it ‘non-saccharine’. Too many films featuring children end up being unbearably melodramatic for my liking; this one wasn’t.

  4. Dear Madhulika,

    The story of “AAKHRI KHAT” is broadly based on that of the Film “MUNNA”, made in 1954 by KA ABBAS. It was billed as the “first songless picture of India”, although there was a woman who was constantly singing some song or the other from other Films., in melodious voice.

    Apropos the pictures you encountered, in Eastern India, particularly in Bengal, the word “Khat”, spelt as খাট (खाट) in vernacular, means a cot or bed, generally the type with wooden frame and strung by coconut fibre ropes. The word “Khatiya” in Hindustani is a derivative.

    With warm regards

    PARTHA

    • Thank you for the information on Munna, I hadn’t known about that.

      I am well aware of what a khaat is (in fact, if I’m not mistaken, it’s also called a khaat in Hindi, besides khatiya). That last picture was merely meant as a bit of comic relief – and a reflection on the sort of results Google searches throw up. :-)

  5. So glad you finally watched this (and liked it!), Madhu. As you point out, this was such a different movie from the usual ones that were made in those times but then Chetan Anand’s sensibilities were definitely different from the mainstream.

    All I could think of when I watched the movie was, who the hell lets their toddler wander around like this for a film? It was really touching, but I wondered at the parents allowing this to happen. I’d my heart in my mouth more than a few times.

    • Yes, I too kept shuddering and wondering how Bunty’s parents allowed him to go wandering around like that – there are so many scenes in the film where he’s obviously in danger of getting run over or something.

      But I realized too that there seem to be plenty of people who are rather blase about letting very young children roam about. I see some every now and then while waiting at the bus stop for the LO to come home: mothers, with toddlers in tow, so busy on their phones, they aren’t even seeing if the child is wandering onto the road or what. And the newspapers, every other day, report another child dead because their parents left the toddler to wander onto the street or climb up on the balcony railing… :-(

  6. Hello,
    Liked the review. While I was researching for the Kaifi Azmi post, I came across, ‘Mere Chanda Mere Munne’. And I had tears in my eyes. But I will watch it someday. It would be difficult for me to watch a child wandering on the streets. My eyes are very shallow, don’t accommodate much tears!

    • Thank you, Anupji! Glad you liked the review. I have had this film on my radar for a long time now – I’d heard good things about it, and eventually decided I must read it when I was doing research for the Khayyam post. Well worth watching, though yes, it did make me cry at times.

  7. Great review. I have heard two things about this film, somewhere. First that it was our official entry to Oscars. But the prints couldn’t reach in time.
    Secondly that Chetan Anand actually let the kid roam around to see if people in a huge city take notice of him. But they didn’t. And that’s what he showed in the movie.
    Anyway I too wanted to watch it for a long time. Will do so.

  8. Yes, it’s sad, but true.
    I have not watched the movie completely yet. But bits and pieces. Incidentally I saw that last train scene. Absolutely horrifying.
    One day I am going to make a list of all the movies I saw after reading their reviews here, including my views on them and mail it to you.
    By the way the last snap of Google search was funny. Ever since Google has gone multilingual it throws really funny results sometimes. On androids, not laptops. Do you know what your site’s name is translated to in Google search?:-
    dustedoff | झाडना
    Results in English हिन्दी में नतीजे
    And then comes your URL. 😀
    I will mail you the screenshot I took.

  9. Like all of your reviews, this one also made me think that I was almost watching the movie and at the same time, create an urge to watch the movie myself. You have a great gift; please keep doing the great work!!

    And the Google search section was a fun little way to tie it all up😊

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